Each month, our classical hosts bring you some of the pieces that struck a chord for them in our Ear to Ear playlist. This October, we have a fantasy concert imagined up by Victor Forman, a celebration of women in classical music with Jennifer Reason and a peek inside the pile of CDs on Kevin Doherty’s desk.
This month's Ear to Ear will feature some new releases, a new take on a classic and even a selection off of the soundtrack of the new "Downton Abbey" movie. As always, you can find the full Ear to Ear playlists on CapRadio's Spotify page.
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This month, I’ve been diving headlong into women in music. I’ve joined the Sacramento Chamber Music Society in kicking off their female composer-themed 2019-2020 season, and I’m working on an upcoming interview for Insight about the best albums of 2019 by female composers and performers. Call it the Year of the Woman, I suppose! So, of course it made perfect sense for me to tailor this month’s Ear to Ear to exactly that theme.
Florence Price — “Symphony No 4: Juba Dance” — Performed by Fort Worth Symphony
Florence Price’s “Symphony No. 1” was the first symphony by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. But her “Symphony No. 4,” which I’ve selected today, she never got to hear performed at all. This piece, along with a large amount of her other music, was re-discovered in a broken down, abandoned house in Illinois, and even then only because the home was about to be torn down after a tree went through the already-dilapidated roof! That’s such a romantic story to me.
Combine that with what she must have gone through working to upend what was then very much a white, male, European artform, and you can see why I’ve chosen to lead off with this selection. It’s infused with layers of importance and meaning and strength. “Juba Dance” in particular is my favorite movement from this symphony. It’s a style of dance from the plantations that involves foot stomping and clapping, as well as slapping all over the body to keep time in various rhythms. You can really hear that influence in this performance!
Libby Larsen — “Blue Piece” — Performed by Lara Downes and Rachel Barton Pine
This one is a triple threat as far as my theme is concerned. Libby Larsen is a Grammy-winning female American composer I’ve long been enthralled with. And here she is performed by not one but two fabulous female artists, and one of them, Lara Downes, is a Sacramento local!
This selection comes from Downes’ album “Holes In the Sky.” The Washington Post described it best: “This star-studded release is a collection of music written and performed by a constellation of today's leading female artists, celebrating the contributions of phenomenal women to the past, present, and future of American music.”
Correction: A previous version of this blog misspelled composer Libby Larsen's name. It has been corrected.
Ludwig van Beethoven — “Moonlight Sonata: Adagio” — Performed and arranged by Maya Beiser
Maya Beiser, of Bang On A Can fame, deconstructs the canon in her new release “delugEON.” She’s arranged all of the traditional pieces herself, and the album is recorded completely without any audio or digital manipulation. As a long-time studio musician, this fascinates me! No editing?! Just the raw sound of her instrument and whatever open space she’s playing in, and whatever sounds were naturally occurring around her?!
The realness of this appeals to me on many levels. A recording of her own heartbeat provides the backdrop for this piece, which to me is incredibly intimate. Finally, hearing a piece I’ve played on piano my whole life recorded on layered cellos is a refreshing reimagining of a very familiar melody. Enjoy!
The pile of CDs on my desk just keeps getting bigger, but there are worse problems to have. There’s a lot of great music out there, and I am happy to be able to share it with you!
Dmitry Shostakovich — “Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D Minor” — Performed by Wei Luo
In the liner notes for his new self-titled album, Chinese pianist Wei Luo wrote, “Russian music is truthful and uncompromising, something I value as a human being.” The album is indeed made up primarily of Russian music. Works by Prokofiev, Shchedrin and Shostakovich are featured along with “outsiders” Ravel and Haydn.
The 24 preludes and fugues (one for every major and minor key) by Shostakovich are an homage to the two cycles of preludes and fugues by Johann Sebastian Bach, known as “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Shostakovich’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D Minor” starts out with an elegiac quality in the prelude and slowly builds to a forceful and rousing finish.
Michael Torke — “Sky: I. Lively.” — Performed by Tessa Lark, David Alan Miller & the Albany Symphony Orchestra
How about a violin concerto rooted in bluegrass and Irish folk? Well, here it is! American composer Michael Torke is no stranger to CapRadio listeners,but his new violin concerto called “Sky” is a bit of a departure from what you are used to hearing on the radio.
He says that when violinist Tessa Lark came to him with an idea for a commission, he was inspired by her Kentucky roots to create a kind of bluegrass concerto. He told Minnesota Public Radio’s Julie Amacher that he thought to himself, “wouldn’t it be interesting if you took banjo picking, and you gave it to the violin to play?” That’s precisely what he did and that is what you hear in this first movement.
Lark mentioned to Torke that bluegrass fiddlers use many of the same techniques as those who play Irish folk. That inspired Torke to incorporate the latter into the second movement. To hear more about the new concerto from Torke, check out the recent New Classical Tracks.
John Lunn — “A Royal Command” from the “Downton Abbey” Soundtrack — Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London
Okay, I have a confession to make, and I’m not sure that you are ready for it: I have never seen a minute of “Downton Abbey” — not a second. But I sure do love the music by John Lunn.
The award-winning series from Julian Fellowes hit the big screen last month, and here I have a selection from the film’s original score. So if you are a fan and you have yet to see the movie, I hope this will inspire you. It’s actually gotten pretty good reviews, which is great news, especially in an era when the film and TV industry won’t leave a good thing well enough alone without endless remakes and sequels.
Welcome to my fantasy concert program at the Victor Concert Hall. Today, it's all about percussion with one, two and four pianos, with one work including voices singing a somewhat naughty libretto.
Bela Bartók — “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” — Performed by Antal Dorati, Geza Frid, Luctor Ponse & members of the London Symphony Orchestra
I open tonight’s program of three 20th century works with Bela Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” from 1937. While it sounds modern, its foundation is built on mostly traditional forms, such as “sonata form” in the opening movement.
But its emotional impression is visceral and at times mystical. The work begins and ends quietly, with the piece opening as if someone were cautiously walking at night into what they were told is a haunted forest, now and then spotting something potentially frightening. Then continuing on, meeting trolls or whatnot, perhaps even catching a glimpse of unknown creatures dancing a wild ceremony before our traveler ventures onward toward … who knows what.
This is not a program suggested by Bartók or anyone, just my own fantastical impression of the music. But listen to hear what you imagine! (FYI: I turn to fantasy to describe this work because, when I acted short works of Samuel Beckett many years ago, I listened to this piece to get myself into a Beckettian headspace.)
If you're intrigued and search out the work's remaining music, you'll discover a calmer second movement of what could be called night music. The third movement ends the sonata with — returning to my mystical tale — perhaps our forest wanderer now in the village retelling his adventure accompanied by a modernistic rendition of local folk tunes. This final movement concludes with a musically whispered "the end."
Leonard Bernstein — “The Age of Anxiety: The Masque” — Performed by Leonard Bernstein, Philippe Entremont and the New York Philharmonic
Continuing with our program of piano and percussion, we arrive at Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein finding inspiration in W. H. Auden’s lengthy poem, "The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue.” Auden later dismissed Bernstein's music as having nothing to do with his writing.
This music is somewhat in the same vein as the Bartók we just heard, percussive and with piano, and modern-ish, but with melody and rhythm more familiar to our ears. Imagine Bernstein’s “On the Town,” but more minimal and intimate and, of course, imbued with jazz. In his written narrative that accompanies the music, Bernstein notes in “The Prologue” that four characters sit in a bar and discuss the meaning of life over drinks.
After lengthy philosophical discussion in the bar, in this movement, "The Masque," the four characters party at the apartment of one of them to the strange sounding jazz in this clip. Time passes, they disperse, and following this movement the Symphony ends more solemnly with "The Epilogue" in which, Bernstein writes, after all the discussion about the meaning of life they discover that “what is left is faith.”
Carl Orff — “Catulli Carmina: Praelusio” — Vaclav Smetacek & the Czech Philharmonic Chorus
I conclude the program with the second of Carl Orff’s “Trionfi” triptych that begins with “Carmina Burana” and ends with “Trionfo di Afrodite.”
This selection is the opening of the middle work of the triptych, “Catulli Carmina,” which I actually prefer over “Carmina Burana” as its orchestration feels more primitive and has a libidinous libretto. The orchestra, heard only in the opening and closing movements, is entirely percussion with four pianos, various drums, cymbals, castanets and maracas, xylophones and more.
In this opening “Praelusio,” young women and men sing to each other of eternal love and devotion, along with explicit flirtations. A group of older men (bass voices) interrupt with mocking and laughter and admonish the youths that nothing (including love) lasts forever, singing: “Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo.” The elder men urge the youths to listen to the story of Catullus, a man in love with the unfaithful Lesbia and the young people agree to listen (“Audiamus!) in the final statement of this clip. “Catulli Carmina” then continues as his story is told in singing of actual ancient poems of Catullus. But in the end (the “Exodium”), the young people return to their opening chorus of youthful passions (“Eis aiona!” — Forever!) and the old men express exasperation.
This is from a 1961 Czech recording that remains my favorite.